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Designer Diary: Aerion, or Disguised Deck Management

Shadi Torbey
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The Cruelty of Solo Game Designers

Aerion started with a simple (and rather mean) idea: Create a solo/two-player co-operative dice game in which you had to acquire resources by rolling different results (double pair, full house, street, etc…), but without getting any free re-rolls to improve the results of your dice. Instead, you'd have to pay for those re-rolls by discarding the very resources you were trying to acquire!

The Basics

In Aerion, you are an air-shipwright tasked to build a new fleet of ships to traverse the skies of the Oniverse. The object of the game is to build six airships before your resources run out. You need three different resources (cards) for each ship: a blueprint to work off of, materials to build it, and a crew to fly it.




You have to manage your resources carefully as you construct each ship: There are two different crew types (each crew can man three types of ship), three different material types (each material allows you to build two types of ship) and six different blueprints (each ship has a specific blueprint).

You also have one more powerful asset that won't directly help you build ships, but does have multiple powerful effects: books. Book cards can be used to re-roll dice, recover discarded resources, or stockpile resources for later.

With the right roll, you can acquire one of the six available cards in the display. If you need a different roll to acquire the card you want, you can discard cards from the display to re-roll. You can keep trying until you either acquire a card or burn through all the cards currently in the display trying! The display isn't refreshed with new cards until the end of your turn, so you need to work with what's in front of you. Discarding cards from the display doesn't just limit your options; it brings you closer to defeat. If all the cards run out before you complete your task, you lose the game!




The airships take shape in your workshops, where you place the resources you've acquired. You can gather the materials and blueprints in any order you want, but your crews won't sit around waiting for the ship to be skyworthy, which means that you need to recruit them last once your ship is built (unless you have a game room, but more about that later). Note that you have only two workshops, so you won't be able to haphazardly accumulate resources that don't fit together.



For an example, let's say that last turn you acquired the cocoon material card and put it into one of your two workshops. Now you roll the dice, and this is what you get: 2/2/5/5/3/6. What should you do? Your dice result has two pairs which lets you acquire the incubus crew, but you don't need it yet as you would have to get a fitting combination of blueprint and material in one of your workshops first — and so far you have only one material card (the previously acquired cocoon).

If you could roll another 5 or 2, you could get the blueprint that goes with the cocoon you already have. Or if you could just roll a 4, you would have the series of sequential numbers necessary to acquire a different blueprint to put in your second workshop space. Or you could even try to get four of a kind to take the always useful book card.

Now, which dice should you re-roll? And, more importantly, which card from the display should you discard to do so?

Divide to Clarify

From the start of the design process, it was clear that I did not want to have all the resource cards in one single deck since this could lead to cards being drawn in unwinnable or unfun combinations, so I separated the cards into several pre-determined mini-decks, based on the combination of dice needed to acquire these cards.




As expected, this led to a much smoother and regular distribution of the cards into the display.

A happy side effect of this decision was that Aerion became something more than just a dice game. The decks are quite small, their composition is known (the symbols on the back serve as reminders), and the discarded cards visible, so the discard-to-re-roll decisions are made not only by determining which card on the display you want, but also which are the most expendable, which cards you could hope will appear next, and the general compatibility of the cards in the display (and, possibly, in the workshops). Aerion is a dice game, certainly, but also a game of...

Should we call this "deck management"?

Expanding: It's About Time!

When designing Oniverse games, building the expansions is always a fun and stimulating challenge: How far can I push the game's core mechanism and add (or, in certain cases, remove) elements without the whole thing falling apart? Aerion includes six expansions to present new challenges for players to conquer.

One of the first elements I wanted to explore was time. The game may put you in some excruciating situations, but it never really puts you under time pressure. If the dice don't seem to go your way, you can often adapt by getting another card than the one you were aiming for, then trying again later. None of this with The Hourglasses expansion! Now you must also acquire the six hourglass cards that remain on the display for only one turn!




The Hourglass expansion elicited its mirror concept: What about cards that you would like to keep in the display as long as possible? This led to The Stone Clouds expansion: Clouds (in the form of tokens) block the skies, and you have to get rid of them! To help you, you have the faithful hammer birds, but these bird cards cannot be acquired, only discarded, either to improve your rolls (so, basically, more free re-rolls here) or to destroy the stone clouds.

And here's the twist: The more hammer birds you use, the more stone clouds you can destroy — exponentially! But how long are you able to play around those bird cards without discarding them for a tempting re-roll?

Expanding: Highs, Lows, and the Villain!

Aerion's base game presents the player with this fundamental dilemma: Which card should I try to acquire, and which cards can I afford to discard for re-rolls to make that happen? The Stone Clouds expansion introduced an incentive for keeping cards in the display until you had multiple copies available, but I wanted to try a different twist on this dynamic as well: What about a card that you could discard for a more powerful re-roll, but with a cost?

The workers featured in The Piers expansion can work overtime to give you three re-rolls instead of one when you discard them, but you must give them their payday later in the game with a roll totaling 26 or more. The workers come with their own additional challenge: Building the piers necessary to properly launch the airships you've built.




The Piers expansion (and, to some extent, The Stone Clouds expansion) make high rolls valuable. But one quality I've always admired in dice games is finding ways to make low rolls useful in their own way. In Aerion, your low rolls can be used for one of the most difficult tasks of all: Hunting our newest villain, The Hellkite!

This vicious predator of the skies lurks in far-flung outposts, preventing you from acquiring the card type shown on the outpost where he currently sits. Fleeing from your hunt to lairs packed with the plunder of past raids, the Hellkite must then be confronted in the heart of his domain where you can reclaim stolen resources and liberate captured crews.




Expanding: Digging Deeper and a Bit of Cheating

When designing expansions, I always aim to ensure that they are fun to play in any combination — including all of them at once! Playing with the workers, hammer birds, and hourglasses together almost doubles the card count in each deck, so a bit of judicious deck manipulation was in order. Plus, there was another facet of the design I still wanted to explore: cards that could never be discarded from the display (in contrast to all other cards of the game, which can always serve as re-roll fodder).




Your friends, the hammer birds, have now laid Eggs all around. You have to retrieve them, being careful not to break a single one! Egg cards can never be discarded (on pain of losing the game!), but once acquired, you can use them to look at top cards of a deck, allowing you to chose a better card to put on the display. You can even do that after a dice roll to try to adapt the display to your roll!

(Thematic — and moral — footnote: Obviously, you are not holding the poor eggs for ransom! You give them back to their parents right away and, later on, the grateful hammer birds will help you see what is coming next. It is only the in-game mechanism that translates into you keeping the cards and using them when needed!)

Once I established a core concept and a series of variations on the central theme, it was time to throw all of that out the window and let players cheat!

The obligation to put acquired cards into the workshops? Gone! (Well, almost.) Now you have a seventh ship to build: The Flagship, which serves as its own workshop and blueprint. All you have to do is gather one copy of each material and of each crew. This additional ship clearly makes the game harder, so players get two cards that let them bend the rules a bit: the factory cards.

Each factory card gives you new capabilities that let you break some of the core rules of the game. No free re-rolls? The geniuses down in the Research Lab can shake that up! You must continue to discard cards until you can acquire something? The Security Department can put a stop to that! The crew has to be added last? Not if you can keep them entertained in the Game Room!




Other factory cards can make your books more effective or modify your re-rolls to let you turn a die to its opposite side. (This one's a special treat for players who prefer a little less randomness in the game.)

Final Destination, or the First Step of a Journey?

With six expansions (each with an optional difficulty setting), one could think that I explored all aspects of this "deck management" system. I actually had just got started. The next idea: What about getting rid of the dice altogether?

But this led to another chapter in the Oniverse and may (hopefully) be the subject of another diary someday.

For now, the skies are waiting! Grab your dice and build some airships!

Shadi Torbey


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Mon Apr 15, 2019 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: From Quiet Shores to Troubled Whirlpools: The Making of Nautilion

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Ancon — a charming city with a lake surrounded by verdant hills, a pleasant marina, a beautiful opera house…

In winter when tourism is dormant, its streets are empty and fog rises from the water, Ancon's beauty takes a rather eerie and melancholic turn, verging on the sinister: something like Death in Venice (without the sun) meets The Shining (without Jack Nicholson running after you with an axe).

Needless to say, I was there one winter.

I had just flown in to replace a deficient colleague in a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I didn't know anybody on the production (the fate of latecomers) and had packed only one book: Jared Diamond's Collapse (which describes how brilliant past civilizations have collapsed almost overnight for badly managing their natural resources –something that, according to Diamond, will happen to us soon, if we do not change our ways).

Was it the uplifting read, the loneliness, the fog? Sitting in my hotel room, thinking about what the next game in the Oniverse series could be, I decided: "I'm going to take the WORST game mechanism ever and use it to make a fun solo/coop game" — and the worst game mechanism I could think of was "roll and move".

Ah, roll and move! The mechanism that most of us "serious gamers" love to hate! How could I possibly turn this into something that I would consider a satisfying and fun solo game experience?

My first impulse was to think: "Onirim: The Dice Game". You are in a labyrinth and have to get out. To do so, you must outrace a bad guy running towards you (it was obvious to me that he'd be running towards you as thematically absurd as it was at that time; my intuition would be proven right a couple of weeks later) and get to the exit (the bad guy's starting point) before he reached the center of the labyrinth (your starting point).

To make things interesting, you wouldn't only need to go as fast as you could, hoping for high rolls (where's the fun in that?); along the way, you would have to gather pieces of a key-like artifact. Only with the complete artifact would you be able to open the exit door. And the path would actually be made of the pieces, so no need for a board or track. For this reason, you would sometimes need to go slower in order to pick the right piece (obviously, there are several copies — four actually — of each piece, allowing you to jump over some of them).

Already in my first draft, the bad guy was not alone: an arch-villain would hover over the race, sabotaging your progress.

So the primal situation with its game-nurturing contradictions was the following:

• You want to go fast BUT must sometimes slow down to get missing pieces.
• You want the bad guy to go slowly BUT you must be careful that he doesn't land too often on the pieces you will need. After all, he steals each piece he lands on, so you sometimes need him to jump over a larger part of the track.
• You need to prevent the arch-villain from too often sabotaging your race as he makes you discard pieces you already have if he gets high results on the dice.

Three actors (player, bad guy, arch-villain), three dice.

And instead of each actor having their own dice, you would roll all three dice each turn, then assign them.

This was the first playable version. It had enough hard and fun decisions in a short amount of time for my taste, so I didn't throw the prototype out the window.

Still there were some flaws: I had no expansions at all and a lot of elements didn't make sense thematically: Why would you race towards the bad guy? Why is he ignoring you when you cross paths in the narrow alleys? Why do you lose as soon as he gets to the center of the labyrinth?

The solution actually came from a tiny, but annoying thematic/component-related problem: How could I represent the player?

In Onirim, the player has no physical presence in the game components: the cards represent the visited locations and the encountered dreams — but the player somehow stays "themself", which I find coherent with the story that the game is telling. And the same goes actually for Sylvion, Urbion, and Castellion.

Would I change this here? And how? A humanoid figure running? An abstract pawn?

Then the answer dawned on me: The player should either be wearing a suit or be in a vehicle! A diving suit? A car? A boat? A submarine!

And suddenly everything made sense!

You weren't escaping anything; you were diving into the depths, towards the lair of the arch-villain, who was no longer hovering over you, but firmly waiting at the bottom of the ocean, prepared to conquer the whole aquatic world of the Oniverse.

The bad guy would be the arch-villain's henchman, a ghost ship — or rather a phantom submarine! — on its way to the surface to bring desolation to your homeland, the Happy Isles.

That's why you have to get to the bad guy's starting point before he gets to yours: By destroying his boss, he will become powerless! And in order to defeat this arch-villain — a sinister Darkhouse that emits darkness instead of light — you would need help from various inhabitants of the depths, no longer inanimate pieces of a key.




This thematic change not only made everything more coherent, but it somehow opened up the game to various expansions, as if the thematic inadequacy of the first draft had me stuck into a mechanical dead end.

First, you could have various submarine designs. With of a simple "air conduct rule" (you can take a new member in your ship only if their cabin is adjacent to the cabin of another member), some submarines would be much easier to man than others. I came up with six different shapes, ranging from quite comfortable (lots of adjacent cabins) to very tricky (with cabins connected only to one other cabin).

Niobe racing the Hammer to Zion through a mechanical line, Lando and Nien Nunb maneuvering the Falcon through the Death Star pipes, Max and Furiosa bogged down under enemy fire — what would a good race between vehicles be without obstacles? In the "Reefs" expansion, some of the crew-members gain special abilities to outmaneuver various sub-aquatic traps that would otherwise bring your ship to a grinding halt, making you lose a whole turn, while the Phantom Submarine, impervious to anything in its way, would continue on its path up relentlessly!

If some crew members were pilots, other could become…fighters! The "Mercenaries" expansion develops on this and adds a new climax to the mid-game. (In a movie — or an opera — you would call it the first act's finale.) Now when you cross paths with the Phantom Submarine, you have to fight him! Not only does it start with better equipment, but it can also enslave fighters it meets on the way, further increasing its strength.

Fighters, pilots…how about some mechanics? Those would have the ability to re-roll some dice, but only if helped by a new sort of crew member: the Undersea Mages! This expansion actually brings a new type of dilemma; the fighters and the pilots help you as part of the crew on the submarine, but in order to get a mechanic's help, you have to pair it with a Mage in a separate section of the ship. Re-rolling dice is cool during the game, but is not part of the winning condition…

And what about the Darkhouse, lurking in the depths? I decided it would be fun to make him a cheater: the fourth expansion (named after him) brings rule-changing cards into the mix. Each turn, a new rule comes into effect, slightly modifying how the dice are rolled or assigned, how the figures move, how the tiles are distributed, and so on. Some of those cards make the game trickier, some make it easier; you choose at the beginning of each game how difficult you want your mix to be, then randomly reveal five cards that will be in effect alternately each turn.




Finally, what's a good crew story without some heroic sacrifices? The last expansion adds those; you will have to sacrifice some of your hard-earned crew members in order to accomplish heroic actions that may help you tremendously — but only if triggered at the right time!

This is how I made the journey from the quiet shores of Ancon's lake to the troubled ocean of the Oniverse, full of turmoil, submarine fights, and tricky tides.

The worst game mechanism ever? Probably.

A fun solo/coop game? Grab the dice, and dive into it to find out!

Shadi Torbey
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Thu Oct 13, 2016 9:00 am
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Designer Diary: Sylvion and Castellion, or Oneiric Onslaughts in the Oniverse

Shadi Torbey
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Sylvion was born out of my desire to create a "tower defense" game in the Oniverse.

I always had a thing for this type of game, maybe because they have so much in common with board games. I thought I could rip a few pages from their book such as resource management, positioning strategies, and coordinating timing.

For my grandmother reading this article, a "tower defense" game is a game in which you need to defend a place, often a castle or a fortress, from evil foes charging in waves. You then have to place towers, barricades or heroes in their way to try to stop them before it's too late. In recent years, Fieldrunners, Plants vs. Zombies, and Kingdom Rush are among the most successful games of the genre.

The theme came to me while remembering the beautiful German forest – I was in Germany for The Marriage of Figaro – and instead of defending a fortress, I wanted the players to protect the Forest of the Oniverse. Fire and flames were the natural enemies, facing an alliance of animals, fountains and floral creatures, each one bringing a specific power.


The draft aspect was the other key element that I wanted to integrate in this game. Instead of playing with the same group of defenders every time, players now have to draft a few of them before each confrontation, giving the players the opportunity to build their own deck for more personalized strategies.

Once a deck is completed, the goal is now to survive the Ravage and its many waves of attacks. Its army and maneuvers are represented with cards, which are divided in four decks. Each of these decks is assigned to a specific zone of the forest.

A game round starts with the revelation of the top card of every Ravage deck and the movement of all of its minions. If one of them reaches the forest, it inflicts a certain amount of damage to the forest — and if the vitality of the forest falls below zero, the game is over.

To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to manage your cards correctly, placing fountains in strategic places and playing the right animals at the right time. But all of these cards have a cost, and you'll need to discard other pieces of your hand to play each of them.

•••


The starting point of Castellion was entirely different: to create a game without any hand to manage.

Even though Onirim, Urbion and Sylvion have very different mechanisms, their objectives and development share a lot of similarities, with the three of them requiring players to manage their cards as well as timing. In these conditions, knowing when to play or discard a card is as important as which card you're actually playing or discarding.


With Castellion, I wanted the decisions to be instantaneous: At the beginning of a turn, the player draws a card and needs to decide immediately if they intend to play or discard it. And since they have no hand of cards, the management takes place somewhere else: the spatial organization of the played cards. Players then need to build something only with these cards: a structure, a building, or perhaps a castle!

After only a few test runs, I decided to replace the cards with tiles as they were much more stable and gave a better sense of construction.


Speaking of tiles, I thought it would be interesting to add a special power to the discard action so that it would create a greater dilemma. This power would then serve to make the castle stronger, able to defend itself.

But to defend the castle from what? That's right: I needed a new villain!

That's when I had the idea of a shape-shifting monster inspired by The Thing by John Carpenter, this cinematic trauma visited on my nine-year-old self. To defeat this entity, the castle has to imitate the monster and also change its form, always getting bigger and stronger so that it might resist the monster's three assaults, each of them more brutal than the last one.


These attacks are triggered when enough Traitor tiles, which are shuffled among the other tiles, are picked and placed. This system creates a great deal of pressure, forcing the players to choose between short-term and long-term preparation, for you never know when the first assault will occur!

The castle's tiles are called Defender tiles, and they represent both a piece of your castle and a defender. There are four types of defenders, each of them carrying a unique shape and a specific power. This power is activated whenever the tile is discarded, whereas the color indicates how and where to position this tile following a defensive formation.

You will need to master these different defensive formations in order to defeat the Menace, and using the right one depends on what form the Menace adopts to attack your castle. For example, if the Menace takes traits of a harpy, your castle will need high towers to defend itself (with these towers being made by aligning columns with tiles of the same color); if the Menace comes at you in a horde instead, you'll need to put up lines of defense (i.e., rows with tiles of the same color).

In the end, Castellion presents itself as a descendant of my childhood puzzles, a puzzle we can do over and over again because of its changing form and versatile pieces. It invites the player to explore all possibilities, but at the same time, reminds them that this is a race against an unavoidable menace.

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Tue Sep 29, 2015 4:00 pm
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